Liberal Bias in the Media: A Study

Recently and justifiably, Jonah Goldberg of National Review suffered barely controllable exasperation at the most recent example of the liberal bias in the main stream media. The proximate cause of Goldberg’s pique was the media acquiesce and perhaps complicity in the extreme language used against Tea Party members who used their political power to block an increase in the debt ceiling without significant spending cuts. These politicians where referred to as “Hezbollah faction,’’ “terrorists,’’ and “traitors’’ by liberal politicians and political pundits. These, in some cases, are the same people are the same who argued that the rhetoric employed in criticism of Obama is too extreme.

Liberal bias is hard to continue to muster anger about. It is an unfortunate calamity of nature, like high humidity in a Washington summer. It may be unhealthy and uncomfortable, but it seems as useless to complain about liberal bias as it is to shake a fist an an approaching high pressure system.

Nonetheless, it does bring to mind a sever year-old empirical study on liberal bias. We all feel we know bias when we see it, but it is hard to separate this assessment from personal biases. Tim Groseclose, professor of political science, published a clever technique to quantify such bias in the Quarterly Journal of Economics The study used the ranking of voting records by the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action to determine which legislators are the most and least liberal. The study then correlated these rankings with the number of times these legislators cited various think tanks and policy groups in their writing and speaking. To rank the liberal or conservative bias of news organizations, they determined the extent to which the citation patterns of different news organizations mimiced those of liberal or conservative legislators.

The final ranking was represented by a scored form 0 to 100, from least to most liberal. The political scores of legislators and think tanks were consistent with common wisdom.. The Heritage Foundation ranked 20, while the Children’ s Defense Fund scored an 80. There were a couple of surprises. The American Civil Liberties Union ranked a relatively moderate 49.8 and the National Rifle Association earned a 45.9. Representative Maxine Walters from California scored a very liberal 99.6, complemented by the very conservative Tom Delay (4.7) from Texas. Pretty much in the exact center was former Senator Arelin Spector (51.3) when he was Republican.

The study showed that the most liberal news organization study was the New York Times with a score of 73.7 (23.7 from an unbiased score). Most news sources scored distinctly liberal scores above 60. Fox News Special Report with Brit Hume ranked 39.7. The Washington Times score of 35.4, was still closer from an unbiased score than the New York Times. The most centrist news organization from this measure from the Newshour with Jim Lehrer with a score of 55.8.

Studies like this are interesting, but are not dispositive to those who religiously cling to the view that the main stream media are not titled toward the left. There are probably other metrics that one could devise that would demonstrated similar results. The value of studies such as these is that it gives news organizations a chance for introspection. Perhaps the New York Times could examine if they are ignoring conservative think tanks and policy institutions. The Washington Times could see if is are too insular. It is a shame that news organizations will find in necessary to attack such studies, rather than use them as a chance for self improvement.

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